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20 years after war began, Bosnia grows more divided

After the Bosnian war, tens of thousands of Muslims who’d been driven from their homes by Serb forces during nearly four years of fighting returned to reclaim their property. Many of the returnees repaired and sold their homes, then left for good — but not Vedad Karic.

The 34-year-old Karic rebuilt his family farm into a modest business, growing vegetables on the two-acre spread in Kijevo, a Sarajevo suburb just inside the Serb-run half of the country. But Karic won’t send his two children to school there. Instead, he drops them at a school in predominantly Muslim Sarajevo, in Bosnia’s Muslim-Croat federation, on his way to hawking his produce in the main market.

Karic’s routine is just a tiny measure of how Bosnia and Herzegovina — the divided state that emerged from the war among Serbs, Croats and Bosnian Muslims that erupted 20 years ago this month — is more divided now than at any time since the conflict ended in December 1995. The Bosnian war was the most brutal of the ethnic conflicts that broke up Communist Yugoslavia following the end of the Cold War.

“I drive my kids in every day for safety reasons,” Karic said, asserting that they’d face harassment and discrimination in Kijevo. “We Muslims who returned are not welcomed by the Serbs over there.”

With few ordinary people mixing across internal borders, and nationalist politicians and media keeping hatreds raw, and segregated schools teaching different curriculums — in some areas, Muslim and Croat children attend the same schools but sit in different classrooms — some Bosnians fear that a new conflict is only a matter of time.

“What we believed 20 years ago would never happen became a reality, so I don’t know what could happen here in the next 10 years,” said Zlatko Dizdarovic, a former journalist who chronicled the war and now serves as Bosnia’s ambassador to Jordan. “Anything is possible.”

“We have the criminals and the fake heroes and the false patriots on top, but we don’t have a system to bring things to a good place,” added Dizdarovic during a visit home this month. “Today, it is a million times more poisonous.”

The 1992-95 war was Europe’s bloodiest since World War II, and it haunts Bosnia like a dark, smothering ghost. In mountain-ringed Sarajevo, the capital, the reminders are everywhere: countless bullet holes in buildings and homes that are flanked by postwar tony apartment blocks and shopping malls selling designer wares that only the wealthy few can afford.

Fresh flowers left at the foot of a statue of Josip Broz Tito, the former communist dictator of Yugoslavia, testify to a yearning by some for the days when he yoked the country’s ethnic groups together under the slogan “brotherhood and unity.” A part of the former army barracks where the statute stands remains a burned-out shell.

The U.S.-brokered Dayton peace accords in 1995 formally diced Bosnia into two entities with their own governments, the Republika Srpska for the Serbs and the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina for the Muslims and Croats. The federation was subdivided into 10 cantons, each of which has its own government. There’s also a weak central government in which the country’s top posts are reserved according to ethnicity.

The deal stopped the slaughter after more than 100,000 deaths. But it institutionalized the ethnic divisions, entrenching nationalist politicians and effectively cementing the upheaval created by the violent ethnic cleansing of hundreds of thousands of people. The vast majority of victims were Muslims uprooted by better-armed Bosnian proxies of rulers in neighboring Serbia and Croatia, who sought to grab “ethnically pure” chunks of Bosnia as Yugoslavia fell apart.

Karic and his family fled Kijevo in 1992 for a Serb-owned home in Tarcin, a mostly Muslim town west of Sarajevo. During the war, the Muslim-dominated Bosnian army imprisoned hundreds of Serb and Croat men inside Tarcin’s windowless grain silo, where some were allegedly tortured and killed.

Karic returned to his farm in 2000 but his parents refused to go, unwilling to live with their Serb former neighbors. He has persevered, he said, without the support of the authorities of either side.

“They won’t give me help over there because they want me out, and they won’t give me any help on this side because I don’t live here,” he said, waiting for customers in Sarajevo’s Markale market beneath a monument bearing the names of 68 people killed by a Bosnian Serb mortar shell on Feb. 5, 1994.

Fear of retaliation by Muslims and Croats has kept Strajko Trifkovic, an 80-year-old Serb, from returning to his home in Grbavica. The Sarajevo district was held by Bosnian Serb fighters who murdered and tortured Muslim and Croat residents.

Trifkovic, living on a monthly pension of about $200, prefers to stay with some 30 other poor, displaced Serbs. They share a dilapidated building on the former Bosnian Serb army base in Lukavica, outside Sarajevo in the Serb republic.

“I came here when the first shots (of the war) were fired. After the war, I partly repaired my home, but it was broken into and I decided not to return. Even if it was fully repaired, I won’t return,” said Trifkovic, whose youngest daughter died in a May 1995 NATO airstrike on Lukavica.

Trifkovic is among some 8,600 Bosnians displaced by the war still living in 150 “collective centers” around the country. Some 105,000 others live in properties that don’t belong to them, unwilling or unable to return to homes from which they fled or were evicted.

“There were people who were fighting on the other side now living in the homes around mine, so I wouldn’t be safe there,” said Trifkovic, casting a rheumy-eyed glance toward the city. “This is supposed to be one country, but I don’t think it ever will be again. When you split an apple, you can’t put it back together.”

A major barrier to unity has been the nationalist parties’ refusals to reform the U.S.-brokered constitution. Doing so could end the vetoes that they use to block almost any legislation that could strengthen the central government. It took 16 months of wrangling over posts to form a government after October 2010 polls.

The worst offender, most experts and Western diplomats agree, is Republika Srpska President Milorad Dodik. He denies that Sarajevo was besieged, downplays the 1994 massacre of some 8,000 Muslim men in Srebrenica — Europe’s worst war crime since the Holocaust — and recently admitted that he is deliberately paralyzing the central government.

Reform also could end the patronage that the parties use to control public-sector jobs. In some areas, even secretaries, school janitors and “kafekuharice” — coffee makers — are appointed by ethnic and party affiliations.

There are rare instances in which members of the three ethnic groups have made common cause. The latest is in front of Parliament, where Serbian snipers fired the first shots of the siege of Sarajevo.

Dozens of men who fought each other during the war have been living for weeks under tents and plastic sheets on the sidewalk, sharing food and fiery shots of homemade brandy. They vow to remain until they’re paid the pensions they were promised when they were forcibly retired in 2010.

“The people who are here are just fighting for their rights. They are all victims of the politicians here in Bosnia and Herzegovina,” said Abid Sehovic, 39, the Muslim who leads Bosnia’s version of the Occupy movement. “They promised us everything and then fooled us.”

Western diplomats and experts said that the United States and the European Union, their attentions shifted to other global trouble spots, have refused to get tough with Bosnia’s nationalists — especially Dodik — whom they’ve instead tried to appease. In their latest concession, they agreed to his demand to pull international judges and prosecutors out of Bosnia’s top war crimes court at the end of the year.

“There is a real need for us to stay here,” said Phillip Weiner, a former Massachusetts prosecutor who serves as a judge, explaining that hundreds of war crimes cases are still pending. “There is still a lack of trust between the ethnic groups. That’s why you need an international presence (on the court) that’s not involved with any of the sides.”

U.S. and European officials now hope that the prospect of Bosnia’s membership in NATO and the EU will push the nationalist parties to embrace the reforms they’ve repeatedly failed to approve. But that seems a long shot _ especially in the Serbian republic, where anger remains high over NATO bombing of Bosnian Serb forces in 1994-95 and the 1999 NATO air campaign against Serbia.

“Never in NATO, Brother Serb,” declares a roadside billboard in Lukavica bearing a picture of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin of Russia, regarded by many Serbs as their historic foreign protector. In an upper corner of the billboard is a small picture of Vojislav Seselj, a Serbian ultranationalist on trial before the U.N. war crimes tribunal in The Hague.

“We don’t want the European Union,” it says.

Emotionally freighted symbols are everywhere. In Mostar, a southern city where some 50,000 Muslims were driven into a pocket on the eastern bank of the Neretva River in 1993 and pounded by fighters of a self-declared Bosnian Croat mini-state, tensions over one such symbol are threatening a financial crisis.

The city council has been unable to meet to pass a 2012 budget since Muslim members boycotted the March 26 opening of a new city hall. The reason for the boycott: a replica of a medieval Croatian tombstone that was placed next to the building as a memorial to seven fighters of the Bosnian Croat militia that besieged the Muslims.

Sometime during the night of April 13-14, another monument was quietly placed in front of the building, this one to fallen soldiers of the predominantly Muslim Bosnian army.